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The Music Moves the Streets : BARRIO RHYTHM: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles, By Steven Loza (University of Illinois Press: $16.95 paper; $42.50 cloth)

September 26, 1993|Lynell George | Lynell George is a Times staff writer for View

In Echo Park most Saturday nights, long after afternoon has softened to evening, mariachis strolling al talon --from cantina to cantina--drift east along Sunset Boulevard, voices tipped to the sky. Alongside them, late 1970s Monte Carlos and Thunderbirds proceed, low and slow, to their own soundtrack: Kid Frost rapping the word of these streets, sounding as "straight outta Compton" as they come. Frost infuses his rhymes with the power and force of black "gangsta rap," but trades English for Spanish--and sometimes blurs the borders.

The vibrant tapestry of L.A.'s Latin music is too often viewed as mere remnant, a faded mural depicting only fuzzy details of immigrant musician lives that no longer occupy the present. Rescuing these lives from storage, Steven Loza's "Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles" explores the music on the streets as the music that moves the streets; a music that is ongoing, ever evolving. He presents an enduring, largely indefinable music form--electric in its immediacy--as the woof and warp of the city's fabric.

An unwieldy hybrid, the lyrics and the pulse behind them in Loza's telling communicate more about the city we live in than any sun-bleached Beach Boy harmony, or the imported grunge wending its way down from soggy Seattle, because it incorporates the rhythms, the dreams, the fusions of the collective Angeleno experience--from swing, to jazz to rough-hewn rock 'n' roll.

"Both rhythm and el barrio are complexes of space, motion and destination," writes Loza, underscoring the properties of restlessness with a bold stroke.

Loza explores the music as if it is a metaphor for terra firma, strains on rolls of sheet music to be blazed like trails. The music has changed radically and swiftly through the eras, with dabblings in jazz, disco and punk; but amid all the trends it still reflects, and thus pays tribute to, traditional Mexican forms, richly echoing of the past.

Los Angeles' Chicano/Mexican American communities, as well as the music that swells from the various quarters, or the lips of its progenitors, defies broad-brush definition. Absorbing the many tone colors of experience, the verse and melodies reflect a complex relationship with a capricious city; the city that eagerly invites, yet abruptly throws up its hands, then makes wild impatient gestures toward the door. L.A., with its messy history of restrictive housing covenants and exclusionary hiring practices, has been for too long the rash and temperamental host.

Like African-American field songs rich in metaphor and euphemism, the music of the L.A. Chicano has served well as a tool of resistance spanning generations and class designations. As well it has become a mechanism to vent frustration, dissatisfaction when working through contradictions of life in America. The key to the persistence of this subculture, Loza suggests, is a "complex matrix of interdependence, ethnic identity and cultural survival."

Loza's meticulous study is dense; as expansive as it is exhaustive (and at times exhausting) in its scope. His ambition is large: to trace the history of a people through dates and other numerical milestones (record sales, for example), immigration, migration and social upheaval while paralleling it with the delicate process of assimilation and acculturation--and to show how it all serves to feed a song.

From morning vespers and early recordings of the Mexican cancion captured by writer-photographer Charles Lummis on wax, to the mainstreamed big-band crooner Andy Russell (nee Andres Rabago) and the reawakened post-'60s voices of "La Raza" embodied by El Chicano, Loza illuminates the path from the 1980s "Eastside Renaissance" to punk and post-punk (The Brat and Los Illegals) and is hot on the trail of Los Lobos.

Though the music has fit its soul into various forms, it hasn't lost sight of its purpose as an instrument of communication and education, nor as a living artifact of "cultural survival." "To what extent will the Latino subculture assimilate into mainstream?" asks Loza. "Some will agree that this will never occur to the extent it has with other minorities. Mexico is simply too close--geographically, historically, economically and in final analysis culturally."

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